The breeze caressed past the hot summer night, whilst the moon hung over the lush treetops.
Xiao Chiye was in tiptop form, so the rush of wine promptly made him hot. At the moment, he was irritable. He stared at Shen Zechuan as the latter made his way down. He said, “So Zhao Zui Temple can still teach one to purify one’s heart of desires and change one’s temper.”
Shen Zechuan dismissed the waiter and said, “I’m the best at grinning and bearing it.”
Xiao Chiye accepted the waiter’s tea to rinse his mouth. Then he wiped his mouth and said, “At least do a decent job if you want to make it up. You probably don’t even know how to spell those last four words.”
“We are all just playing along for fun.” Shen Zechuan wiped his hands and smiled at him. “Yet, you took it seriously.”
Xiao Chiye did not look at him. He simply threw the handkerchief onto the tray and said, “The show is over. Who would believe that? Someone has to play that particular role, no? I, Xiao Ce’an, was just perfect for it. Didn’t you feel good watching it too?”
“That blade is a treasure.” Shen Zechuan’s eyes wandered down.
Xiao Chiye raised his hand to block his view and said, “And the person isn’t?”
One of the lanterns upstairs went out. Shen Zechuan sighed and said “How do you expect me to reply to that? That’s rather inappropriate.”
“You have a good eye.” Xiao Chiye moved his hand away and stared at him ruthlessly and fiercely. “Few people can recognize a good blade.”
“Why is it that when you praise me,” Xiao Chiye said, “I feel as if I’ve seen a ghost?”
“You hardly get praised, huh?” Shen Zechuan comforted him and said, “I haven’t even voiced my most sincere ones yet.”
The surrounding people had all dispersed.
Xiao Chiye said in a lukewarm tone, “You sure can endure.”
“Grand plans are ruined by a lack of forbearance. There’s more of my capability to come.” Shen Zechuan smiled, “Don’t be so anxious.”
“Grand plans.” Xiao Chiye said, “Qudu is only this big. What else is there for you to strive this hard for?”
“I was just saying.” Shen Zechuan paused and looked affectionately at Xiao Chiye. “And you really believed it. Second Young Master, I really couldn’t tell that you are the kind who are naïve and artless.”
“I’m just a frivolous young master who’s just loafing around drinking and dining and waiting to die.” Xiao Chiye said. “How would I know how treacherous the world is? There’s even someone like you to coax me.”
“My bad.” Shen Zechuan moved a step. “I saw how pitiful you were with your talons and fangs sealed off. Slaying with your blade tonight must have been pretty gratifying for you.”
“A little.” Xiao Chiye lifted his leg to block Shen Zechuan’s way and said, “Where are you going? We aren’t done talking yet. “
“Sending you back to your residence.” Shen Zechuan said, “You helped me out a tight spot tonight. I’m so grateful I’m shedding tears. There is no way I can ever repay you for this kindness.”
Xiao Chiye smiled and said, “You are so full of lies. You must have deceived quite a number of people, huh?”
“There aren’t many who have been taken in.” Shen Zechuan looked back. “A man always has to tell a few lies, like ‘I’ve lots of money’ that kind.”
Xiao Chiye withdrew his leg and said, “I’m nothing compared to you.”
“See.” Shen Zechuan said gently, “You’re being polite again.”
There was simply no way to chat with this man.
Because there was no way he could tell which of his words were the truth and which were the lies. Every sentence was like the superficial surface of muddied water. Even if he circled around it, he could still not pry anything out of it.
Xiao Chiye turned around and whistled for his horse. He said, “It was because of the incident tonight that you speak on such close terms to me. Everyone is gone now. It’s meaningless to keep on pretending.”
“Then what can I do?” Shen Zechuan picked up the lantern and looked at him gently and obediently. “Give you another bite?”
Xiao Chiye swiftly took a step closer and said with ease, “You use this mortal flesh of yours to bewitch others. What do you want me to think by looking at me like that?”
Unperturbed, Shen Zechuan said to him in a soft voice, “I was born with such a pair of expressive eyes.”
Xiao Chiye used his whip to point between Shen Zechuan’s eyebrows without touching it. He said derisively, “What a waste of those eyes. All they contain within are machinations.”
“I was born to be lowly.” Shen Zechuan lifted his finger and slowly pushed aside his whip. He said, “If I don’t machinate, then how am I going to have my fun?”
“I did what I did tonight for myself.” Xiao Chiye said mercilessly. “Don’t you go around thinking it was because I’m interested in you.”
“The moon is so beautiful tonight.” Shen Zechuan said, “Why do you have to spoil the mood and stop me from thinking so?”
Xiao Chiye flipped onto the horse and looked at him for a moment as he held the reins. He said frivolously, “I fear that you will latch on to me because of this bit of kindness and get on my nerves with all those weeping and wailing.”
“Did you have too much to drink?” Shen Zechuan insinuated. “You are beyond cure.”
“Who knows about that?” Xiao Chiye said. “It’s not like you have never made such an unreasonable scene before.”
The night quietened down.
Xiao Chiye withdrew his eyes. This could be said to be a small victory. He spurred his horse on a few steps when he suddenly heard the man behind him say with a smile.
“Have you found what you lost five years ago?”
Xiao Chiye abruptly looked back and instantly reined in his horse. He demanded in a frosty voice, “Return me the thumb ring.”
Shen Zechuan looked at him, but Xiao Chiye found the expression in his eyes wicked.
Shen Zechuan said, “Want the thumb ring? Easy. Bark twice like a dog, and I’ll give it back to you.”
The gyrfalcon swooped down and landed on Xiao Chiye’s shoulder. Together with its master, it stared frostily at Shen Zechuan. It was in the dead of night. An unnamed watchman3 struck his clapper4 and startled the lantern in Shen Zechuan’s hand into extinguishing.
The road went dark.
It was several days later before Li Jianheng dared to show his face before Xiao Chiye. He was surprised to find that Xiao Chiye’s anger had yet to subside. Ice fragments kept scattering all around them while they were listening to the music, scaring those delicate, smooth-skinned ladies so much that not one of them dared to come over to wait upon them.
Li Jianheng held the teacup in his hands to shield himself and whispered, “Are you still angry?”
Xiao Chiye chomped the ice to pieces and said, “Nope.”
Li Jianheng’s hair stood on end as he heard those “crunch” sounds. He said, “Autumn is right around the corner, so don’t eat ice like that. It’s rather terrifying.”
“Such a big cellar of ice is prepared every year. It’d be a waste to leave it there.” Xiao Chiye propped up both his legs and leaned back.
“Then, I’ll tell you something happy.” Li Jianheng could not help but shift his butt over. He said, “That Feng Quan. You know who he is?”
“Remember that little lady I told you about.” Li Jianheng beamed and said with shifty eyes, “Feng Quan is her younger brother. She has now won the favor of Pan Rugui, so how could Pan Rugui not promote Feng Quan? This Feng Quan is such a glib talker. He even coaxed Ji Lei until Ji Lei was over the moon and wanted to take him as his son!”
“From the looks of it.” Xiao Chiye propped up his head with one arm and glanced at Li Jianheng. “You really have your heart set on that little lady.”
“Of course.” Li Jianheng said, “So, the incident that day was all done by that bastard, Ji Lei. As his son, how would Feng Quan dare to defy his father’s order?”
“So, you are saying you want me to let him off?” Xiao Chiye asked.
Li Jianheng was a flexible man who did not have the aspirations expected of the descendants of the imperial clan. He hurriedly slipped down from his chair and squatted before Xiao Chiye to implore him. “Buddy, please let him off this once for the sake of my romance. Besides, didn’t we make him eat until he puked? He’s Pan Rugui’s man, after all. It isn’t good not to give him face. It has only been a few days since Xiaofuzi’s incident. His Majesty is still watching us.”
Xiao Chiye suddenly stared at him. He sat up and asked, “Did you touch her?”
Li Jianheng hummed.
Xiao Chiye said, “You touch Pan Rugui’s woman right under his nose?”
“If he were a real man, I wouldn’t do it.” Li Jianheng reluctantly stood up and said, “He’s just an old eunuch with just that bit of trick to liven things up. He beat up a delicate and ravishing beauty all day long until she wept! This beauty was originally mine. If you were in my shoes, would you do it or not?!”5
Exasperated at Li Jianheng’s failure to live up to expectations, Xiao Chiye said, “No!”
Li Jianheng pleaded again, “Ce’an, we are buddies! How big an issue can it be? Hm? Just turn a blind eye. If you let Feng Quan off, I’ll give you something else to play with!”
Xiao Chiye lay back again and said nothing.
If Pan Rugui found out about this incident, then Xiaofuzi’s episode would be nothing in comparison. That old dog would definitely think of ways to kill them both. His promotion of Feng Quan alone was sufficient for anyone to get a glimpse of how much he doted on that woman.
Pan Rugui was already sixty-five years of age. He had no biological son, and none of the pretty women around him these years could remain by his side for so long. If he truly regarded this woman as his wife or concubine, then he might even dare to hack Li Jianheng to death.
Xiao Chiye listened to Li Jianheng’s incessant chatter and said, “Since you dared to do this, does it mean you already have a plan thought out?”
Li Jianheng sat on the carpet and lowered his head to study his moso-bamboo fan. He said in a small voice, “… Not really… It’s just that I’ve heard, heard that Pan Rugui had once kept a toy boy. All I have to do is to just have to send him one to play with, no?”
Xiao Chiye said, “There aren’t many who could surpass that beauty of yours, are there?”
Li Jianheng was on tenterhooks and did not dare to hide it from him. He said, “Lately, quite a number of people have been asking around about that… Shen Lanzhou.”
“Asking about what?”
“Asking about his price, and whether they could afford to raise him.” Seeing Xiao Chiye’s expressionless face, Li Jianheng hurriedly grabbed the chair and said, “Money is not an issue. But I don’t dare to look for him. If he were to take desperate measures after being pushed into the corner… Ce’an, help me this once! You just need to send him to Pan Rugui. After the job is done, I’ll give him silver! Or even gold!”
Xiao Chiye rested his hands on his knees in silence.
Thinking there was hope, Li Jianheng said again, “Don’t you hate Shen Wei? Once you fix him this time, Shen Zechuan would not dare to throw his weight before you in the future! Think about it. If he didn’t die, he would be able to turn things around. But if he were to be involved in such a shady deal in Qudu, he would lead a life worse than death! Furthermore, isn’t the Empress Dowager also thinking of…”
“I thought you were using your brain while speaking.” Xiao Chiye slowly pulled out his legs and said, “Turns out it’s all fucking mush inside.”
“Ce’an, Ce’an!” Seeing him leave, Li Jianheng lifted the hem of his robe and chased after him out of the door.
Xiao Chiye stepped out of the building and mounted his horse. Without even turning his head back, he left.
Even if they let Shen Zechuan be Pan Rugui’s forbidden pleasure, would Pan Rugui dare to accept him? This man was the man the Empress Dowager was always watching with the intent to protect. If Pan Rugui dared to take him, then he would be burning his own bridges. Li Jianheng was out of his mind!
But, if Li Jianheng really dared to do that.
If Li Jianheng really dared to do that…
How would he suddenly dare to do that?
Shen Zechuan got off work. He had only just removed his authority token and stepped out of the door when he saw that excellent, handsome steed of Xiao Chiye.
He descended the stairs and asked, “Here to ask for your thumb ring back?”
Xiao Chiye snapped off a branch with leaves and held it between his teeth. He looked at him for a moment and said, “It’s broad daylight, and you are still not sober? Return it to me. Stop bullshitting me.”
“You weren’t this short-tempered that other night.” Shen Zechuan looked at the sky. “It would be too humiliating for the Viceroy if you were to stand here and bark like a dog. Which means you aren’t here for the thumb ring. So what’s the matter? Spit it out.”
“Aren’t you well aware of what’s the matter?” Xiao Chiye sat on the rock with his long legs to prop up his elbows and arms. “Prince Chu wanted to give Xiaofuzi a thrashing, and you could even get a line on it from inside the temple. I forgot all about it at the turn of the head. But now that I think about it, you must have planted a man by his side, right? If he wasn’t an informer, then he was the instigator who told him to do so.”
“If I were that capable.” Shen Zechuan said, “I would not have been reduced to raising elephants.”
“Who knows if that’s the truth or a lie?” Xiao Chiye’s eyes were aloof and cold. “You have to give me a clear account before I can decide whether or not to believe it.”
- 宝贝 baobei; treasure, or precious, but can also mean darling or baby. e.g., parents may call their children baobei, or lovers may address each other as baobei too.
- 瞎猫撞上死耗子 literally, a blind cat stumbling upon a dead mouse. i.e., by sheer luck.
- 更夫 (or 打更人) A night watchman who typically patrolled the streets at night with a wooden clapper or a g/ong and a mallet and regularly sounded the instruments at certain intervals to remind the others of the time and to look out for potential fire hazards. (See next footnote for a watchman with a clapper.)
梆子 watchman’s wooden or bamboo clapper.
- 干 the word means “do” (an action), but it can also mean to screw (someone sexually). So when Li Jianheng said “do it”, it could also mean “screw her” or “do her”.